Thursday, March 1, 2012

An Ounce of Prevention

There were two major newspapers in Boston when I was growing up. Sadly, that’s two more than most cities in the U.S. have remaining. But at the time, the paper trade was still a thriving business. Our family did not subscribe to either, though we faithfully picked up the Sunday edition of the Boston Globe. I’ll never forget the first time I was tasked to get the paper for the family one Sunday. I was about ten-years-old and the mercantile—affectionately called “The Corner Store,” though I never learned its actual name—was a stone’s throw away, literally on the corner of the block on which I lived.

I dutifully purchased the paper and scampered back home, only to get a tongue-lashing from my parents and endless berating from my sisters, because I had picked up the Boston Herald, the other aforementioned major metropolitan newspaper. In my naïvete, I bought the one with the best funnies. I mean, the news was the news, right? But not every paper had Peanuts and Broom Hilda and Moose Miller and the Amazing Spider-Man. The Globe had less comics and crummy ones—to my young mind—like Fred Basset and Brenda Starr (Over time, I came to love Fred Basset, the subtle humor of which was lost on my wee mind). I took the abuse and enjoyed my funnies and wasn’t asked to get the paper for some time thereafter.

Jump forward a decade and my family is still loyally buying the Sunday Boston Globe, and that periodical still had an inferior comics section to that of The Herald’s. Imagine my surprise, though, when I opened the comics spreadsheet to find myself face-to-face with my future alter-ego. The Amazing Spider-Man had swung into the pages of The Globe. My excitement, however, was short-lived as I dove into the strip. WTF does not begin to describe my reaction. Peter Parker, a victim of childhood sexual abuse?!!

The year was 1985 and Marvel Comics had teamed with the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse (NCPCA) to bring awareness and educate parents, teachers, guardians, children, everyone on the terrible crime. Their approach was to reveal that the famous iconic superhero was himself a victim. In so doing, the NCPCA hoped to crack the emotional shell of other such unfortunates who blamed themselves for suffering abuse and subsequently fled the world by building a psychological fortress in which to hide, thus doing terrible damage to their lives.

Youngsters are taught from the first that when they do something wrong they are punished. Abuse is a heinous act, one that a child views as a punishment—Why else would it happen to them?—so they see themselves as having done something wrong; that they somehow deserved the abuse. Think of it this way: if you think it’s mind-boggling that anyone could abuse a child. How do you think the youngster feels?

The second book in the NCPCA series of Spider-Man comics
dealt with emotional abuse

Comic aficionado that I was, the newspaper strip seemed an oddity to me, a jump-the-shark moment that strangely was never mentioned in the mainstream Spidey comic books at the time or since. It was only a couple of years later, after I’d worked as the Wondrous Web-Slinger for a year and been deemed worthy of officially ascending to the pantheon of performers in Marvel Personal Appearance Department, that some light was finally shed on the subject.

The newspaper strip was hardly an anomaly, but rather a public service announcement that ran in every paper across the country—regardless of who had the Web-Swinger’s comic strip license—the initial salvo in a nationwide campaign that included three custom comic books. Each comic dealt with a different form of abuse. The first, which was released in conjunction with the program’s kick-off, concerned sexual abuse. The cover sported nifty John Byrne art and a vignette box by artist June Brigman, exalting the inclusion of Power Pack, Marvel’s kid super-team. The subsequent editions in 1987 and 1990, handled emotional and physical abuse and featured art by John Romita and Alex Saviuk, respectively.

The back of each NCPCA comic presented tips and featured art not necessarily representative of the cover artist. This example from the third issue uses John Romita Spidey clip art and a depiction of Skids, a forgotten New Mutants character by the title’s then artist Bret Blevins.

According to comics industry guru Jim Shooter—as reported on his blog—Marvel covered the entire cost of the premiere book in the series. But their reasons were far from altruistic. They expected the comic’s foreign rights sales to go through the roof. Quite the contrary. When the company pitched the book to its overseas publishing licensees at the Frankfurt Book Fair, they were greeted with blank stares and yawns. For the subsequent two issues, The House of I Deals, i.e. Marvel who prided themselves on being the House of Ideas, wasn’t taking any chances of losing their shirts. They got the money up front by way of sponsorships. A banner ballyhooing 7-Eleven’s and Kmart’s participation sits prominently at the bottom of each of the two follow-up covers, respectively. This may explain the delay in getting these comics published. After all, what’s more important: saving children’s lives or the company’s bottom line?

The third and final book handled physical abuse
and was sponsored by Kmart

The initial print run for the first comic in the series was a million copies. It was freely distributed to “schools, service organizations, community groups and concerned individuals,” according to the article in Marvel Update, the company’s in-house newsletter. More important, the books were handed out at live appearances by Spider-Man who would speak directly to kids about abuse and his coping with being a victim himself.

Unfortunately, during the program’s first forays, the reaction by parents and self-serving locals in the areas Spider-Man visited was more knee-jerk than sympathetic. The Web-Swinger’s arrival was greeted with placards, emblazoned with such bon mots as SPIDEY GO HOME!, because the media outlets were—surprise!—more concerned with creating a fervor than reporting facts and created the impression that Spider-Man’s visit was part of some vast conspiracy to brainwash the nation’s yutes.

Still, barring these initial growing pains, in the short time since its inception, the campaign was deemed a success. Many youngsters across the country had come forward after hearing their hero reveal that he was no different than they. Peter Parker had overcome his brush with abuse and grown up to be a superhero! If nothing else, the message that bad things don’t just happen to bad people or kids, was powerful and empowering. Spider-Man was giving these young ’uns the courage to speak up and get the help they needed.

What’s more, I was to be one of those crusading crime-fighters! I must say, I was more than a little apprehensive to shoulder such an awesome responsibility. These gigs would be as far away from the bantering Webster as one could get. I was honored to even be considered, but this wasn’t an Academy Award nomination; this was delivery nitroglycerin in a chuck wagon over open terrain.

Not one of my better poses, but the sponsor wanted the shot with the signage and I wasn’t about to step on
the hood of somebody’s car

It’s important to note that the actor was at no time left to his own devices at these appearances. A specialist, a trained professional, was required on site during the presentation, ready to intercede when/if a child opened up about a possible problem. Spider-Man was merely the vehicle with which to deliver the information, and introducing the people to which the children could speak—even after the Web-Shooter swung off to resume fighting crime—was an integral part, reiterated several times throughout.

The hosts were urged to distribute the comics and discuss the issues therein with the students beforehand. They were also given detailed guidelines and a copy of the script, the preamble of which noted the following:

“Sponsors should be aware that while the basic content is as scripted below, each actor paraphrases the material in his own style. It is not verbatim. Sponsors should also be aware that actors cannot deviate from the basic content of the script except for warm-up and closing ‘meet and greet’ conversation with the audience.”

Preparing for my dramatic entrance

Each venue and every audience were different, and even though the demonstration was targeted at children in grades 4–6, oftentimes the kids were younger or older. There was no way for the performer to predict what type of intro would work until he arrived and got a feel for the assemblage. The script began with a tried-and-true gimmick to engage the kids:

Spider-Man: “Hi!” (some response) “I said ‘Hi!’” (huge response)

This approach worked pretty much as written a majority of the time, the response inversely proportional to the age of the kids; the younger they were, the greater the outcome. All bets were off, though, once the audience exceeded the suggested grade limit. If lucky, one’s reply went from lackluster to slightly less so. But heckling was more likely. And it only took one radical, shouting out “Hey, Spidey, how’s it hanging?!!”, in a group of older youth for his or her peers to suddenly feel sanctioned to join the ridicule chorus with their own puerile quips.

This adaptation to one’s listeners extended to the abuse portion of the script as well, not so much in altering the subject matter—the crucial bits remained—as in the shaping of the delivery and phrasing. A younger audience needed a gentler approach—it was not unusual to be speaking to kindergarten classes—while older groups were confronted more directly. The program wisely allowed these varying conditions, while also respecting each actor’s Web-Swinger portrayal. NCPCA and Marvel trusted the performer’s expertise—their experience of successfully navigating the vagaries of people and places across the country—in this regard.

Having portrayed Spidey for a little more than two years helped allay my fears and calm my nerves on my inaugural adventures for the NCPCA. Though, given the added weight of these appearances, my agita facing them never disappeared completely throughout the years. I trusted the character to carry me through. If an actor’s investiture in a role is as all-encompassing as it should be, the onus of reacting to the happenings of the script becomes second nature. The allowance to massage the script to fit the needs of our individual interpretations of the Web-Spinner facilitated the process.

The back cover to the second book in the NCPCA series was the only one to feature original art, this by John Romita

Still, I notated the emotional beats in the script the way I would had I been studying a Shakespearean role. I wanted to ensure the information received as great an impact as possible and didn’t get lost behind the mask. To that end, I had to find the truth of the subject matter within myself. I cannot begin to understand the emotional and psychological damage of being sexually abused. But I certainly empathize with being an outcast among my classmates and feeling somehow that I was the cause. It was with those feelings that I built the dramatic core of my role within the context of Peter Parker’s character. I’m relieved to say, I never experienced a disclosure, but I received a lot of hugs, something I needed after every presentation.

It might be argued that Peter Parker was never a victim of abuse, and there are certainly more than enough geeks—purists—who find it easier to cover their ears, close their eyes and shout “La-la-la…” whenever a writer comes along who does something they regard anathema to their view of the character, which they deem as sacrosanct. There are factions of this ilk that traverse the entire history of the Web-Slinger, citing such events as The Death of Gwen Stacy; Peter’s marriage to M.J.; The Clone Saga; or “Brand New Day” as the moment that Marvel pulled the trigger and killed the one, true Spider-Man. Everything thereafter doesn’t exist for these individuals.

Four jump-the-shark moments in the Spidey’s history: (l. to r.) “The Clone Saga,” “Brand New Day,” Peter Parker’s and Mary-Jane’s wedding and “The Death of Gwen Stacy”

So how—they would contend—could I possibly perform the character faithfully with the uncharacteristic albatross of abuse around his neck? The same way Tom Hanks makes us forget he was never an astronaut in Apollo 13; Leonardo di Caprio fools us he’s actually explored people’s dreams in Inception; or Kevin Spacey makes us believe there really is a Keyser Söze in Usual Suspects. Put another way, a person gaining the powers to cling to walls and lift Cadillacs bare-handed is believable, but imbuing that person’s back story with the reality-based pain of abuse is not?!!!

But then again, I don’t necessarily dismiss events in the Spidey universe as some do. I believe any story that is true to Webhead’s nature can work if written well. When introduced in Amazing Fantasy #15, Peter Parker is ostracized and bullied as a nerd by his classmates; he wears glasses and dresses in unfashionable attire; his parents are long dead and he has no siblings; he is being raised within a lower income by his aunt and uncle. Saddling him with the victimization of sexual abuse is but another obstacle that makes his emergence as a hero that much more pronounced. And what could be more heroic than not only overcoming the hardships of the past, but also using them as a means to protect or help others from suffering the same.

After all, “with great power comes great responsibility” and what could be more true to Spider-Man than that?

The best part of the job!


John III said...

That had to be really special to be part of that. I remember that Spidey/Powerpack ad about the sexual abuse. I remember just staring at it on my comic and wondering what THAT was all about. I'm very blessed I didn't REALLY understand, you know what I mean.

Vik said...

I'm glad to hear that you never received a disclosure; you were clearly prepared to handle it, but I can imagine that it's still a significant burden to have. Especially since you've cultivated some sort of bond with the kids you've spoken to--to have one of them come forward like that is certainly a good thing, but makes you a little worse for wear, I'd think.

On a lighter note, with regard to comic book continuity, I'll quote a translation of an Albert Camus line: "everything is true and nothing is true!" I just go with what works unless it is explicitly contradicted by something else, and if I don't like what its being contradicted by, I ignore it until the contradicting thing is reiterated again. Spider-Man being a victim would fall into my personal Spider-Man continuity.

Finally, I object to this line: "the response in direct disproportion to the age of the kids; the younger they were, the greater the outcome." A disproportion implies no proportion at all, I believe you instead meant to say "the response inversely proportional to the... etc." Here's a graph I constructed showing the relationship of age to magnitude of response to Spidey:

The curve starts off near zero because babies are probably terrified of Spider-Man (I am still waiting for the government to accept my grant proposal so that I may further test this hypothesis). At the end there are a few outlier points to represent the jeers.

Vroom! said...

Hi Vik!

Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

Of course I meant "inversely proportional." Oftimes, when writing something of such import, my intent to phrase my thoughts clearly ends up obfuscating the result, i.e. "I'm thinking too much!" :-)